A woman was convicted of manslaughter Friday in the death of her tiny, malnourished 7-year-old daughter in a case that shocked New Yorkers and hastened reforms in New York's child welfare agency.
Brooklyn jurors deliberated three days before convicting Nixzaliz Santiago in the January 2006 death of Nixzmary Brown, who was severely punished after she was caught stealing yogurt.
Santiago — like her husband — was acquitted of murder and convicted of manslaughter. Cesar Rodriguez, who delivered the fatal blow, was convicted in March and is serving 29 years in prison.
The trial had raised questions of whether mothers should be held to a higher standard than fathers. Prosecutors argued that the mother had failed to protect her child in shocking fashion, and should be thoroughly punished.
"Today is a good day for the children because this jury said loud and clearly that parents have a duty," prosecutor Ama Dwimoh said. "... It's not just what you do — it's what you don't do."
Evidence included grim crime-scene photos from the room where Nixzmary was bound to a chair, starved and forced to urinate in a litter box. Nixzmary was so malnourished when she died that she weighed only 36 pounds — about half the weight of an average girl that age.
Santiago could face up to 33 years in prison — more than her husband — when she is sentenced on Nov. 5. An appeal is planned.
"She did not do the same as Cesar," said defense attorney Sammy Sanchez. "An angel, Nixzmary Brown, died and that was a tragedy and we feel terrible for all of the family. But Cesar was the true criminal."
Demands for reform
Defense attorney Kathleen Mullin said Santiago tried twice to stop her husband from hitting the girl, and didn't know he continued beating her until she died. She said Santiago was a loving but overworked mother caring for five other children, and was afraid of her husband.
"If the mother doesn't protect their child, who does?" countered Dwimoh. "This is a woman who is obsessed with her man, who chooses her man over her daughter."
Dwimoh said Santiago had an obligation to call for help after she saw the battered girl, but simply didn't care.
"She had every reason to believe she was going to lose this little girl, and she doesn't call for an ambulance," said the prosecutor. "She doesn't do anything until it's too late."
Investigators discovered Nixzmary had been a virtual prisoner, confined to a room with dirty mattresses and a broken radiator. She was bound to a wooden chair with a rope.
There had long been warning signs. School employees had reported that she had been absent for weeks the previous year. Neighbors noticed unexplained injuries and noted that the child appeared underfed, though Sanchez has said she was just small for her age. Child-welfare workers had been alerted twice but said they found no conclusive evidence of abuse.
The case, coupled with a series of other high-profile deaths of children known to the agency, sparked public demands for reform. City officials responded by bolstering the corps of caseworkers.
Four of Santiago's other children are in foster care with the same family, and her remaining son is living with his father. Santiago's mother, Maria Gonzalez, is seeking custody of the children and has filed a lawsuit against the city in Nixzmary's death.